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'Persist Until Success'
Former Virginia Governor Wilder Keynotes King Celebration

By Carla Garnett

Photos by Ernie Branson

On the Front Page...

Given the theme of this year's Martin Luther King, Jr., birthday celebration, "A Lesson in Peace that Cannot Be Erased," it seemed only fitting that the keynote address be delivered by Douglas Wilder, who is both a distinguished professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and a virtual history lesson as the first African American ever elected as a U.S. governor.


Keynoter Douglas Wilder
"This holiday is a quilt piece, a patchwork of all of the people who have been involved through the years — nameless, faceless, unidentifiable — who...came together to lift the veil of oppression," Wilder said, recalling words he used when first announcing that Virginia had adopted King's birthday as a state holiday. "This is the time to commemorate the ideals and the sacrifices of those giants as well as to inspire young people to give purpose to their lives. We're not here to celebrate a speech nor a speaker, but to address the concerns still unaddressed by the nation."

Described by NIH deputy director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein as "a program that has become part of the fabric of NIH," the observance held on Jan. 16 also contained traditional salutes to King's vision of harmonious diversity, with performances by the NIH Preschool Song & Dance Troupe and the reading of the litany in several languages by NIH employees. Pianist Wydell Croom, accompanied by saxophonist Brian Mills, offered additional music for the occasion with renditions of "Someday We'll All Be Free" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

It was, however, the children — ever the scene-stealers of the program who sang and pantomimed several tunes, including "You Can Be a Rainbow, Too" — and the promise of the world's next generation of visionaries that continued to be the focus of the celebration.

Recalling the Dream (above, from l): NIBIB director Dr. Roderic Pettigrew; NINDS EEO Officer Levon Parker; and NIH associate director for research on women's health Dr. Vivian Pinn discuss Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy.

"I couldn't imagine an artist depicting the dream of Martin Luther King any better," Wilder said, referring to the array of youngsters from different backgrounds and races merrily singing together.

"Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., revolutionized the basic structure of American society," Kirschstein acknowledged. "Dr. King's birthday is a time for each of us to recommit ourselves to the very ideals for which he lived and for which he died. He was one of the most influential Americans of the 20th century. His impact was felt near and far. Needless to say, many NIH training programs and research initiatives — particularly NIH's role in closing the health disparities gap — were inspired by the work of Dr. King."

Using the program's theme, Wilder reminded attendees that education always has been the cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement. "How well we educate our children will determine America's responsibility, and its prosperity," he said. "Global competition demands such."

Flanking Wilder are Lawrence Self, director of the NIH Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management, and NIH deputy director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein.

The former governor, who described himself as a reluctant politician who entered the campaign fray only when he found that constructive criticism of public policy alone was not enough, offered NIH'ers a message of hope. He urged individuals to begin to make a difference now.

"We can't measure our agenda by who gets elected to be President, governor, senator or whatever," Wilder said, recalling that when the Civil Rights agenda began, those in the White House or the State House were not directly involved in the movement. "It doesn't matter who is elected, so long as we elect ourselves. There is not a day or a time when the critical issues facing our country can afford not to be addressed. We are a young nation. Sometimes the world forgets that. We're just about two and a quarter centuries old. Our strides, our accomplishments and our leadership among the nations belies the short span of our existence. When one takes into account (that the nation was) almost torn asunder by a great war prior to our emerging maturity, it's quite an amazing event."

History, Wilder noted, ought to be used to help keep a strong nation healthy.

"Is this nation sick?" he asked. "What exactly is the malady? What are the symptoms? Is it infectious or communicable? What therapeutics have been used? What have been the impacts of the various interventions? We can use negotiations and public policies to heal where scalpels have been used in war. What could be more fitting than the message that men fought a great war — the Civil War — and yet it caused a nation to be born. We're at that point in our nation, when we can look to the past and learn from our mistakes. If we don't know the past, we can't learn."

Performances by the NIH Preschool Song & Dance Troupe — particularly their enthusiastic rendition of the tune,"You Can Be a Rainbow, Too" — serve as inspiration for the annual celebration.

The diversity of the United States is one of the country's treasures, Wilder pointed out. "We are a nation of many races, religions, cultures and heritages and we always have been — from the day it started," he said. "It is this unity of variety and abundance that makes us great. We're not perfect and we will continue to make mistakes, but I'm convinced that Americans are good-willed. We'll prevail against the bigots and the zealots that selfishly promote themselves."

Wilder cautioned against engaging "naysayers, who don't see progress" and "hatemongers, who seek to slow down progress at any price." He encouraged pride in today's generation, warning about the dangers of overglorifying bygone days. "There never were any 'good ol' days' for all of America's people," he asserted. "The untapped sources of human potential that exist today are sometimes too awesome to contemplate. No, all of the great minds and visionaries have not passed into the abyss. There have been no greater minds than exist today. No greater opportunities have existed anywhere in the world than exist in America today. And yet, no greater challenges have ever existed than exist today. We find on too many occasions that the very taproots of our society are infected with the malignancies of greed, corruption, selfishness, exploitation. We've got to recognize some of the causes of our problems. When there is an increasing loss of respect for the things that we hold venerable, it takes away from the already-too-few stalwarts who would be part of the solution."

Kemi Adetola of the Clinical Center and Dr. Richard Harrison of NIDA are only two of the several NIH'ers called upon to lead the reading of the King litany; Adetola read in Yoruba, the language of Nigeria, and Harrison read in the Osage language.

Finally, Wilder evoked King's wish that all people be judged solely by their character, instead of by the somewhat capricious labels society often affixes to its citizens.

"This beacon light that our nation holds could still be brighter," he concluded, "but it will not be found by the continued jousting of who's good and who's bad in our society. Only by respecting and protecting the rights of every American can any American be able to guarantee to his posterity the beauty and the bounty of this land. There are far more things that unite us than divide us. We've got to get away from labels and using them to define individuals. We must define ourselves."

Pianist Wydell Croom and
saxophonist Brian Mills perform.

Wilder suggested that today's young people learn a litany with words as strong as those Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self evident. That all men are created equal..."

Children, he said, should be taught to say and believe, "I will persist until I succeed, because I was not delivered into this world in defeat, nor does defeatism run through the blood of my ancestors. I'm not some sheep waiting to be prodded by a shepherd. I am a lion. I don't want to associate with the sheep. I don't want to know the sheep, because the slaughterhouse of failure is not my destiny. I will persist until I succeed."

Dr. Roderic Pettigrew, first permanent director of NIH's newest institute, the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, ended the observance with a personal perspective on MLK Day, in light of his upbringing in the deep South during the Civil Rights era.

He began with a description of his early life experiences, posing the question: "Dream or nightmare?" He said he clearly recalls being a frightened 10-year-old in Albany, Ga., where racial intimidation and violence were commonplace. At the time, he said, he often did not think he would live to adulthood. In this regard, he said his experiences were more like a nightmare than a hopeful dream.

Program emcee Parker (l), poster art/cover designer Earle Barnes (c) of NCI and organizing committee member Mike Chew of OEODM/NCCAM show NIH's MLK Day 2003 Poster.

Pettigrew said his outlook changed, however, when King brought his "dream" of hope, his championship of "human worth" to Albany and the region. Pettigrew contrasted the "majesty of King's literary style — characterized by the masterful use of metaphors, similies and analogies — with the simple power of his message. Simple yet strong themes like fair play, dignity of work and a call for mutual respect were at the core of King's writings and oratory." The power of his universal message still resonates, Pettigrew concluded. "Living this dream seems to require only that we respect our fellow man, that we believe in and respect ourselves, that we practice fair play and that we value human worth. Doing this would enable each of us to live the dream and escape the nightmare."

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